Athlete of the Month – December 2015
For the past two years, Great Britain’s Heather Stanning, a star rower in the women’s pair, has featured on World Rowing’s list of Top 10 female rowers along with her rowing partner Helen Glover.
World Rowing talked to the 2012 Olympic Champion and found out how she discovered the sport of rowing while studying at university thanks to the British talent identification programme, Start. The two-time World Champion and World Best Time holder has had an unbroken streak of wins since London 2012 and is training for her second Olympic Games.
World Rowing: How would you describe your relationship to sport before you began to row?
Heather Stanning: I’ve always been into sport. At school I took part in every sports team I could, but was very much a jack of all trades but master of none!
WR: Your yearbook for your final year at school predicted that you would become an Olympic gold medal winner. In your opinion, what led your schoolmates to believe this?
HS: I think they wrote that about me because I literally did every sport at school, anything that got me out of the classroom. The sports field was very much where I performed best at school.
WR: How did you get in touch with the Start Programme? How did the identification process unfold?
HS: I was identified by Paul Stannard for the Start Programme. He was based at Bath University, where I had joined the boat club in my first year at university. I had initially started rowing to make new friends and try a sport I had never had the opportunity to do before, but once Paul asked me to join his training group I became a lot more serious about the sport.
WR: What led you to study sports technology? What did you learn during this time that you can now apply as an elite athlete?
HS: I studied sports technology mainly because I didn't get the grades to do sports science. I knew I wanted to do a degree in sport and at Bath Uni, so that was the course they offered. In hindsight it was very well-suited to me, as there was an engineering aspect to the course, which I really enjoyed. I learned a lot about material science and also touched on medical engineering. Although it doesn’t help me in the day-to-day training as an elite athlete, it does mean I have a better understanding of the equipment we use in rowing and how it has developed.
WR: What led you to join the British Army?
HS: I knew from a young age I wanted to join the armed forces. It’s very much in the family. I decided at age 16 to apply to the Army and I gained a school scholarship and then a bursary for university. The variety of jobs on offer and the lifestyle were very much the attraction for me back then.
WR: How has your role in the British Army as an artillery officer influence you as an athlete, and vice versa?
HS: Being an officer in the British Army and being an athlete are very different roles. However, each does influence my approach to the other. As an athlete it’s all about me and getting the best out of myself and those in the boat with me. In the army it’s all about working to achieve other people’s objectives, but in doing so, working as a team and getting the most out of the team. So I guess the teamwork aspect is key in both.
WR: You first became a World Champion in 2007 at the under-23 level, when you won gold in the women’s pair with Olivia Whitlam. How did this result motivate you for your future rowing career?
HS: When I won with Olivia I thought that was as good as I’d ever be at rowing. Back then I couldn’t see how I would ever be good enough to make the senior team, let alone the Olympics. I then went and joined the army and put my rowing career to one side. It was only watching Olivia on TV, racing the final in the pair at Beijing that made me realise I’d given up too easily. And that’s when the challenge became to combine a military career with one as an athlete.
WR: In 2010, you and Helen Glover began your successful partnership. How would you say your strengths and personalities are complementary?
HS: Helen and I are very different characters, but complement each other perfectly. She’s fiercely competitive and will work tirelessly to get the best out of herself. I’m more methodical and like to have a plan. Together we’re a healthy combination of the two. We are both fairly easy going and really appreciate what each other brings to the boat, so I guess that’s one of our strengths.
WR: What were the challenges of returning to training and competition in 2014 after a season off?
HS: 2014 as a season was a huge challenge mentally and physically. I returned to training with huge aspirations, but I had to beat a World Champion to get back in the boat I wanted to race in. The team had moved on in the time I was away, and I had a lot to catch up with physically and technically. When it came to racing that year Helen and I were very much limited by me, how much training I could cope with and how hard I could race. The final in Amsterdam was a huge relief for me.
WR: What is it like for you to be heading to Rio as an unbeaten crew?
HS: Well there are still a few more races before Rio, so I’m not going to get ahead of myself. But going into an event unbeaten does bring with it added pressure. However regardless of how many races we’ve won, it’s all about getting the next one right.
WR: Which race has been your most difficult so far?
HS: For me there’s no stand-out race that was more difficult than the others, but a race I will never forget is the world’s final in 2011 where we lost by 0.08sec. That was really tough.
WR: How would you describe everyday life as part of the elite GB rowing squad?
HS: At the moment tiring! Winter months are always tough for any athlete, but being part of a large team means that you always have others around you to share the experience with. We’re lucky, as a team we are well supported so have a centralised base when at home, which means we have great facilities to train in every day.
WR: You won Great Britain’s first ever female Olympic gold medal in rowing. What made this special for you?
HS: I think because it was won on home water, and was also Team GB’s first gold of the London Games, it made the whole experience far more than we could have ever expected. But personally it was special because so many friends and family were there watching and supporting, along with numerous British female rowers who had paved the way before us.
WR: Which athletes have been an inspiration for you in your rowing career and how?
HS: I take inspiration from all over the place, not just in sport. I’m inspired by people who achieve things against all odds and who challenge both themselves and those around them. As a youngster I admired the likes of Dame Kelly Holmes and all she achieved in athletics, but also the adventurer Sir Ranulph Fiennes, who despite being the same age as my dad continues to physically challenge himself and achieve things that people my age would struggle with.
WR: What is the most important piece of advice you would give to aspiring elite rowers?
HS: First and foremost you have to enjoy what you do, otherwise you will never get the best out of yourself. Secondly, don’t be afraid of the challenge and take the easy option of giving up. It may take some time to reach your potential, but ensure you give yourself the best possible opportunity to do so.